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September 2008

Hidden Treasures
Written By: 
Harlan Greene
Photographs By: 
Christopher Brown

There, in the climate-controlled vault of Special Collections, academics and enthusiasts alike are encouraged to view, and sometimes inspect, first editions of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, 2,500-year-old coins from lost civilizations, a stunning collection of mid-20th-century handmade paper, or the scrapbooks of a World War II concentration camp liberator.

Here are six of the varied collections that anyone—any day of the workweek—can visit to explore tangible vestiges of the past.

The John Henry Dick Ornithology Collection

Each morning during the school year, head of Special Collections Marie Ferrara gives visitors a different masterpiece to marvel over. After donning white archival gloves, she gently turns a page of one of the natural history world’s greatest treasures: the double elephant folio of the Birds of America by John James Audubon.

The jewel in the crown of the John Henry Dick Ornithology Collection, it was completed in 1838, an unparalleled work of 435 hand-colored folio plates illustrating 1,065 birds in four grandly bound volumes that, when open, are larger than many dining room tables. Only 175 sets are known to exist, and one resides in a display case built especially for it.

Dick—who moved to Dixie Plantation, his family’s winter home 20 miles south of Charleston, from New York in 1947—combined his passion for art and birds into beautiful illustrations that would be published in numerous books. He also collected the rarest of works by the greatest bird artists and lithographers and created more than 20,000 photographs and drawings, all of which, upon his death, he donated to Special Collections.

This veritable cornucopia of avian delights also includes American Ornithology by Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), which precedes Birds of America by some 20 years; five works by Daniel Giraud Elliot, distinguished by their more scholarly content; and more than a dozen works by John Gould (1804-1881), who, unlike Audubon, traveled widely and used the relatively new technique of lithography.

Joel Handshu Coin Collection

Numismatists would do well to drop a quarter in a downtown parking meter for the chance to gaze at the Joel Handshu Coin Collection, including some nearly 2,500 years old and bearing the likenesses of gods and goddesses, emperors and tyrants.

In 1998 Handshu, a lifelong coin enthusiast, who was originally from Pennsylvania, donated to the college 175 pieces of history in metal, spanning 550 B.C. to circa 1200 A.D. and providing a near complete portrait gallery of Roman emperors from Augustus through Leo I (roughly 27 B.C. to 474 A.D.)

There are about 90 emperors profiled here (literally); visiting the collection, you can put faces to Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Agrippa, Germanicus, and others you may recall from lessons in Western Civilization.

For those whom Roman history holds little appeal, there’s a second group of some 40 coins representing Grecian culture from the sixth through the second century B.C. And in an era long before European currencies disappeared under a flood of bland Euros, ancient countries had been minting their own coins: the collection holds about 20 samples from the lost worlds of Carthage, Judea, Byzantium, and other political entities.

Each semester, students taking Roman history classes are assigned one coin on which to research and write a paper, and, according to Ferrara, the reactions from them run the gamut from simple fascination to downright awe. “The coins really affect the people who come in to see them,” she says. “To be able to hold something so ancient in your hand gives you such respect for history.”

Scholarship is ongoing on the Handshu collection, and recently a graduate student and professor team at the college received a grant to fully research the coins, investigations that may perhaps uncover some surprises in this unique assemblage.

The Juliette Staats Papermaking Collection

There was a time—before the acidic, brittle sheets of dime novels and 
recycled printer paper—when paper, not just what was printed on it, was an art form in and of itself.
Juliette Staats, one of Charleston’s leading hostesses as well as a papermaker and bookbinder, understood the skill that went into handcrafted paper, and in her lifetime she sought and collected the works of renowned papermaker Dard Hunter (1883-1966), a man determined to revive this neglected art.

An early adherent of the Arts and Crafts movement in the early- to mid-20th century, Hunter spent decades traveling the world and investigating the history of papermaking and printing, from the mulberry tree sheets of ancient China and Japan to the animal and vegetable fibers of India and Siam to the writing implements of Mexico and the islands of the South Pacific.

In 1923, Hunter produced 200 copies of Old Papermaking, for which he wrote the text, created and set the type, made the paper, and bound the sheets—in essence making the volumes a modern-day lesson in an ancient craft. So important was Hunter’s scholarship and research that he is credited with single-handedly resurrecting the craft.
Today, the voluminous collection, encompassing more than two dozen books and hundreds of examples of handcrafted paper from around the world, occupies shelf after shelf in Special Collections’ vaults, all stored in boxes Staats lovingly made herself.

The Jewish Heritage Collection

No one at Special Collections can really say with absolute certainty how large the Jewish Heritage 
Collection really is, since it’s constantly growing and evolving, proving the old adage that the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts. Begun in 1995 by Harvard-trained scholar Dr. Dale Rosengarten, the collection, culled from hundreds of contributions and solicited materials, 
offers an in-depth lesson in the history of the Jewish experience in Charleston, the South, and the world.

This rich variety of materials includes a 1745 grant of arms from the College of Heralds in London to Joseph Salvador, the man responsible for repatriating many Jews to the American colonies; early records of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, the first Reformed Jewish synagogue in the country; and a recent gift from Temple Sinai in Sumter—Isaac Harby’s 1824 manuscript prayer book, the founding document of Reform Judaism in America.

There are more recent voices present, too. Scores of recorded oral histories from the beginning of the 20th century tell a tale of two worlds in Charleston: the downtown and uptown Jews; the old and the new families. Stories of immigrants, corner grocery stores, and Gullah employees who spoke Yiddish add a new dimension to the saga of Jewish families who have lived for centuries in this Promised Land between the Cooper and Ashley rivers.

Extending the reach of the collection are other oral histories that record the testimonies of Holocaust survivors who settled in South Carolina and artifacts from the concentration camps, including photographs of the result of Nazi atrocities.

“The Jewish Heritage Collection chronicles an extraordinary American story,” says Rosengarten. “The archive spans 300 years of Jewish life in the American South, with a focus on South Carolina, which, from its founding as a British colony, welcomed Jews as merchants with connections bridging the Atlantic. Visitors to the archive will find extensive documentation of day-to-day economic, social, and religious affairs and the roles Jewish Southerners have played in state, national, and world events.”

The Derrydale Press Sporting Book Collection

Derrydales—if that sounds like a merry song of hunting over hill and dale, you’re not far off, for it’s the name of a printing press dedicated to sporting classics founded by New Jersey businessman Eugene Virginius Connett III.

An avid collector of sporting books, Connett amassed a stunning collection, ranging in price from modest sums to several thousand dollars each. He later joined forces with Merrymount Press’ Daniel Updike, one of America’s most noted typographers, printers, and book designers. From 1927 to 1941, the firm reprinted a series of early-American sporting books so scarce that no big game (or big book) hunter could ever hope to flush one out into view.

Of the 169 Derrydales printed, the Special Collections owns 88, most of which came from the generous donation of Robert Scott Small, who endowed the college with funds for collecting; others were gifts from John Henry Dick. One of the rarer volumes is the fishing book Magic Hours—the first book to bear the Derrydale imprint in 1927—which Connett created himself by hand. Intending to print 100, he ran out of paper and so only 89 were completed, making it a coveted catch for Special Collections.

Here as well are reprints of Pteryplegia, or the art of shooting-fly, first printed in 1727 and the first book on wing shooting written in English, and Trout and Angling, originally printed in 1833 and the first fishing book published in America.

The Friends of the Library Rare Book Collection

The smell of the paper, the feel of the leather binding, the untrimmed pages, the curious watermarks—these are the elements that rare book lovers rejoice in, and this is why the Friends of Addlestone Library, under the leadership of John Rivers, Jr., has determined to keep the exceptional book titles coming. The following, all milestones in Western civilization, have been added in the past year:

Histories by Herodotus, circa 1502. Only 25 copies of this book—considered the first prose masterpiece by the “father of history”— are known to exist.

Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, 1749-1789. Among the first to free science from theology, Buffon made possible the works of the later masters such as John James Audubon. The 38-volume set is illustrated with more than 1,000 engravings of plants and animals.

An Account of Voyages Undertaken…for making discoveries in the southern hemisphere, 1773; A Voyage Towards the South Pole, and Round the World, 1777; and A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, 1784. Captain James Cook’s accounts of his voyages are a firsthand record of the momentous contributions he made to science, geography, anthropology, and navigation.

The Federalist: A Collection of Essays in Favor of the New Constitution, by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, 1788. One of the most important writings of our country, the college’s first edition is a compilation of these men’s original 77 essays.

On the Origin of the Species by means of Natural Selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life, by Charles Darwin, 1859. A pristine copy in its original green cloth, the book represents a watershed moment in history when science and religion began to feel the true weight of Darwin’s ideas.

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